Months of concern about security and hotel preparations were to give way to Russian folk dancers and flag-waving athletes when the US$51 billion Sochi Winter Olympics started last night with the pageantry of the opening ceremony.
Chinese President Xi Jinping (習近平) and Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe were to be among about four dozen heads of state attending, though US President Barack Obama is staying away. Instead, the delegation of US dignitaries was to include several gay members in a slap at Russia’s law banning public expressions of support for homosexuality.
Russian President Vladimir Putin is using the games, the most expensive in history, to transform a Soviet-era summer resort on the Black Sea into a year-round destination. This week’s arrival of athletes and journalists left organizers scrambling to finish facilities as visitors complained about incomplete hotels, half-built sidewalks and the city’s cull of stray dogs.
Nordic skier Todd Lodwick, who will become the first American to compete in six Winter Olympics, was to carry the US flag into 40,000-seat Fisht Olympic Stadium.
“It’s a huge honor, and it’s not taken lightly. It slowly starts to hit you that I represent my country and all those athletes who have worked so hard to get here,” Lodwick said on Thursday at a news conference. “I’m going to carry that thing with pride.”
While the 230-athlete US team is the largest in Winter Olympics history, nations such as Togo and Tonga will be making their debut at the games. Eighty-seven nations were to parade into the stadium last night.
Moscow Times newspaper said the ceremony — which organizers expect would be watched by 3 billion people worldwide — would pay homage to Russian culture, including ballet and classical music.
The Sochi 2014 Organizing Committee promised “the most technologically innovative ceremony ever” capped by a grandiose fireworks show.
The Olympic torch was to complete a 65,000km relay that covered 123 days and included a record 14,000 carriers. Among the torchbearers was UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon, who carried it on Thursday.
The ceremony was to take place against a backdrop of tight security, with 40,000 police and special services officers in the area. Concerns about safety increased after two suicide bombings killed more than 30 people in December in the Russian city of Volgograd, less than 700km from Sochi.
Guards patrolled the length of the train that carries visitors the 30km between the main Olympic Park and the mountain area. Police and soldiers, some manning camouflaged tents, occupied spots along the line, which runs alongside a road built to speed athletes and officials to the sites.
International Olympic Committee spokesman Mark Adams said organizers were satisfied that Russian authorities had done all they could to make the Sochi Games safe.
“Terrorism and insecurity is a global phenomenon,” he said at a news conference on Thursday. “We have seen that in London, we have seen that in Atlanta, we have seen that in Boston. We are very confident that what was promised will be delivered.”